Lowland Meadows and Pastures - Habitat Action Plan

Ref 2/H9 Habitat Action Plan 9
Plan Author: Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Plan Co-ordinator: Farmland BAP Topic Group
Plan Leader: Natural England
Final May 2007

Action Plan Summary

Current Status

National Status

  • This plan concentrates on meadows and pastures associated with low-input nutrient regimes and covers the major forms of neutral grassland which have a specialist group of scarce and declining plant species. Among flowering plants, these include fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris), dyer`s greenweed (Genista tinctoria), green-winged orchid (Orchis morio), greater butterfly orchid (Platanthera chlorantha) and pepper saxifrage (Silaum silaus). Lowland meadows and pastures are important habitats for skylark and a number of other farmland birds. They may also contain features such as spring-fed streams and drainage ditches, which can be important for biodiversity.
  • The plan is not restricted to grasslands cut for hay, but also takes into account unimproved neutral pastures where livestock grazing is the main land use. In non-agricultural settings, such grasslands are less frequent but additional examples may be found in recreational sites, churchyards, roadside verges and a variety of other localities. Excluded from this plan are maritime grassland communities confined to coastal habitats (which are in maritime cliff and machair action plans), Anthoxanthum odoratum - Geranium sylvaticum grasslands (which are treated in a companion action plan for upland hay meadows) and Molinia - Juncus pastures (which are covered in the purple moor grass and rush pasture (Molinia-Juncus) plan).
  • As indicated in the Habitat Statement included in Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report, Volume 2 (1995), unimproved neutral grassland habitat has undergone a remarkable decline in the 20th century, almost entirely due to changing agricultural practice. It is estimated that by 1984 in lowland England and Wales, semi-natural grassland had declined by 97% over the previous 50 years to approximately 0.2million ha. Losses have continued during the 1980s and 1990s, and have been recorded at 10% per annum in some parts of England. Recent conservation survey findings in Britain and Northern Ireland reveal that the impact has been pervasive; it is estimated that only 10,521 ha of species-rich neutral grassland survive today in the UK.
  • The overall outcome of habitat change in the lowland agricultural zone is that Cynosurus - Centaurea grassland, the mainstream community of unimproved hay meadows and pastures over much of Britain, is now highly localised, fragmented and in small stands.
  • Agricultural intensification has led to the extensive development of nutrient-demanding, productive Lolium perenne grasslands. These are managed for grazing and also silage production which has widely replaced traditional hay-making. Where fertiliser input is relaxed or in swards which have only been partially improved, Lolium - Cynosurus grassland is common; in many respects, this is intermediate between improved and unimproved lowland neutral grasslands, but has few uncommon species and is generally of low botanical value.

Norfolk Status

  • East Anglia contains a small percentage (21%) of land occupied by permanent pasture and rough grazing (Roberts and Smyth, 1990). The Norfolk Phase 1 Habitat Survey carried out by the Norfolk Naturalists' Trust in the mid-1980s concluded that only 8% (3,376 ha) of the grassland in the county is of any conservation interest; of this, 476.74 ha is composed of the NVC types listed below, outside the Norfolk Broads (Harris, 2005). Aerial photographs show that most semi-natural grassland has been lost in the latter half of this century, with 73% of the grassland occurring in 1947 disappearing by 1984 (Smyth, 1988). This loss has been accompanied by a loss in subsidiary habitats, such as ponds and hedgerows.
  • A wide range of grassland types occurs in Norfolk and their characteristics are dependent on soils, water, management and location. Much of the unimproved grassland is concentrated along the river valleys, on alluvium and peat deposits, tending to be predominantly wet. Neutral grassland is found in the Broads as extensive grazing marsh (dealt with under the Coastal and Floodplain Grazing Marsh HAP) and as fragmented meadows on the boulder clay deposited at the end of the last glaciation. These clayland grasslands form a broad belt from south-east Norfolk, through to mid-Norfolk and the north. Acid grassland is considered under the Lowland Heath HAP for Norfolk. A separate HAP has also been prepared for lowland calcareous grasslands.
  • The following NVC mesotrophic grassland communities are of relevence to Norfolk; however, only those marked with an asterix are considered important in terms of nature conservation and are covered by this plan. Species lists for the NVC types are given in Appendix I.

    MG1: Arrhenatherum elatius coarse grassland
    MG5*: Centaurea nigra - Cynosurus cristatus meadow
    MG6: Lolium perenne - Cynosurus cristatus pasture
    MG7: Lolium perenne improved pasture
    MG8*: Cynosurus cristatus - Caltha palustris flood pasture
    MG9: Holcus lanatus - Deschampsia caespitosa coarse grassland
    MG10: Holcus lanatus - Juncus effusus rush pasture
    MG11*: Festuca rubra - Agrostis stolonifera - Potentilla anserina inundation grassland
    MG12*: Festuca arundinacea coarse grassland
    MG13*: Agrostis stolonifera - Alopecurus geniculatus inundation grassland.

    It should be noted that there is not an NVC type for the boulder clay grasslands, but that these do have a distinct suite of species, as shown in Appendix I.
     
  • Lowland meadow and pasture SSSIs in Norfolk include:

    1) Thompson Water, Carr & Common: 154.90ha
    2) Dereham Rush Meadow: 22.17ha
    3) New Buckenham Common: 21.00ha
    4) Fritton Common: 19.86ha
    5) The Brinks, Northwold: 16.30ha
     
  • The Norfolk Grassland Survey (1990) surveyed a total of 276 County Wildlife Sites, covering 1766.98 ha. Lowland meadow and pasture County Wildlife Sites of note in Norfolk include:

    1) Ivy Farm Meadows (CWS No. 1412) (TG 210215): 42.47 ha
    2) Earlham Cemetery (CWS No. 1461) (TG 210088): 22.61 ha
    3) Hales Green (CWS No. 141) (TM 373963): 17.36 ha
    4) Poors Allotment & Cotton Marsh (CWS No. 1234) (TG 435225): 13.55 ha
    5) Blickling Hall (CWS No. 1383) (TG 172289): 13.47 ha

Links with other Habitat and Species Action Plans

  • It will be important to ensure that periodically flooded grasslands (usually Alopecurus - Sanguisorba) are taken into account during implementation of the action plan for coastal and floodplain grazing marshes; actions in the two plans need to be closely integrated.
  • Lowland meadows are an important habitat for a number of farmland birds, including skylark (Alauda arvensis). Their requirements should also be taken into account in the implementation of the plan and in managing sites; late hay cuts every three to four years can help this species by avoiding disturbance to nests.
  • Scattered scrub on grassland sites may also be used by species such as turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur) and again the requirements of such species should be taken into account when managing sites.
  • Great crested newt (Tristurus cristatus) should be considered where meadows contain or are linked to ponds as these species are dependent on terrestrial habitats, especially grassland.

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Current factors causing loss or decline of the habitat in Norfolk

The factors currently affecting lowland meadows and pastures reduce both the quality and the quantity of the habitat, whilst fragmentation brings increased risk of species extinctions in the small remnant areas. Key factors contributing to the loss and decline of the habitat include:

  • Agricultural improvement through drainage, ploughing, re-seeding, fertiliser treatment, slurry application, conversion to arable and a shift from hay-making to silage production. It has also become increasingly difficult to find farmers with the equipment to make small bales of hay.
  • Decline in the perceived agricultural value of species-rich pasture and hay in farming regimes. There is an attendant problem of the practicalities of managing small, isolated sites and of access to the appropriate machinery.
  • Decline in grazing causing abandonment, leading to rank over-growth, dominance of coarse grasses, bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and scrub encroachment.
  • Supplementary stock feeding, associated with increased stocking levels, which can lead to eutrophication as well as localised poaching and establishment of pernicious weeds.
  • Application of herbicides and other pesticides.
  • Atmospheric pollution and climate change, the influence of which is not fully assessed.
  • Reduced inundation frequency and duration, in water-meadows and floodplain grasslands associated with abandoned irrigation schemes, and lowered water tables as a result of land drainage, flood alleviation engineering, surface and ground water abstraction, floodplain gravel extraction and other activities.
  • Floristic impoverishment as a consequence of heavy grazing pressure and changes in stock species and breeds.

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Current Action in Norfolk

Legal Status

  • A significant proportion of Norfolk’s remaining lowland meadows and pastures have been protected within SSSIs. According to the Norfolk Grassland Audit (2006), it is estimated that there are 3,461.61 ha of neutral grassland existing on SSSIs. Of this total, 57.12 ha have been defined as unimproved neutral grassland, whilst 2,425.55 ha have been defined as neutral grassland. Much of the latter is likely to comprise of unimproved stands, although this could not be confirmed using available data. Most of the sites listed in the audit and not notified as SSSIs have been notified as County Wildlife Sites.

Other Action

  • The Norfolk Grassland Survey (Roberts and Smyth, 1990) provided a study of key grassland sites, including NVC and rare species information. However, much of the information it contains is now out of date and Natural England is embarking upon an update of grassland information across the eastern region. NWT carried out an audit of grassland sites in 2006, collating background information on known grassland SSSIs and CWS (Harris, 2006).
  • Of the 1,231 County Wildlife Sites notified in Norfolk, 750 contain grassland habitat; of these, 91 are predominantly NVC communities considered important for nature conservation. County Wildlife Sites across Norfolk are provided with free advice on management and grant aid by Norfolk Wildlife Trust and are afforded a degree of protection under the development and planning processes.
  • Grassland habitats are the principal focus of the Churchyard Conservation Scheme (run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust) and the Roadside Nature Reserve programme (run by NWT and Norfolk County Council). The latter include some of the best fragments of boulder clay grassland in South Norfolk and provide an important stronghold for the nationally scarce sulphur clover (Trifolium ochroleucon).
  • On behalf of the Norfolk Biodiversity Partnership, NWT has undertaken an ecological network mapping project for Norfolk (Land, 2006). The report of the project highlights areas in the county where grassland re-creation is desirable to re-connect and buffer fragmented habitats.
  • The regional “under-grazing” project aims to seek solutions to the problems caused by a decline in grazing stock across East Anglia.

Management, Research and Guidance

  • Management agreements have been established for many neutral grassland SSSIs, so that favourable low-intensity farming methods are maintained.
  • Unimproved neutral grasslands are included in the UK agri-environment schemes which provide complementary incentives for farmers to conserve this habitat across wider agricultural landscapes. Permanent grassland managed under the ESA and Countryside Stewardship Schemes has included statutory and non-statutory designated meadows and pastures. Lowland meadow is an HLS target in most of the Joint Character Areas relevant to Norfolk. Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) offers options for low input grassland management and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) provides a broad range of grassland maintenance, restoration and re-creation options targeted at SSSIs, BAP habitats and species, plus important grassland features characteristic of the wider landscape.
  • Local authorities and non-governmental organisations in Norfolk make a major contribution to the conservation of species-rich lowland meadows; this includes those organisations that own or manage sites and the County Wildlife Site partnership, which provides advice to landowners.
  • On a national level, research into various aspects of grassland management is vital. This includes gathering data on the efficacy of different grazing regimes and different stock, as well as the impact of atmospheric nutrient deposition and climate change. In Norfolk, work to redress the decline in grazing stock needs to continue and there is also a need to further investigate the possibilities for establishing species-rich grasslands and possible sources of local provenance seed.

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Action Plan Objectives and Targets

National

  • Maintain the current extent of lowland meadows in the UK. (Target represents no loss of BAP habitat).
  • Maintain at least the current condition of lowland meadows.
  • Achieve favourable or recovering condition for 7,088ha of lowland meadow by 2010.
  • Restore 1,736 ha of lowland meadow from semi-improved or neglected grassland, which no longer meets the priority habitat definition by 2010.
  • Re-establish 345 ha of grassland of wildlife value from arable or improved grassland, by 2010.
  • 260 ha (75%) of re-established area to be adjacent to existing lowland meadows or other semi-natural habitat by 2010. (Refer to T5)
  • 170 ha (50%) of re-established area to contribute to resultant habitat patches of two ha or more of lowland meadow by 2010. (Refer to T5)

Norfolk

  • Establish, through audits, desk studies and field work, a more accurate figure for the extent of lowland meadow and pasture in Norfolk, building on information contained in the Norfolk Grassland Audit (2006).
  • Maintain the existing resource (currently estimated as 5,480.13 ha) through advisory work, protection under the land use planning system and increased publicity about the importance of semi-natural grasslands. Management advice and site restoration or re-creation should also address the need to reduce the negative effects of fragmentation through buffering existing sites, developing ecological networks and the linkage of existing sites. This, in turn, is linked to the need to develop stronger grazing networks.
  • Wherever biologically feasible, achieve favourable status of all significant stands of unimproved lowland meadow and pasture within SSSIs by 2010.
  • For stands outside SSSIs, wherever biologically feasible, secure favourable condition over 75 per cent of the resource by 2015. This will focus mostly on CWS, with some attention to churchyards and Roadside Nature Reserves.
  • Restore 100 ha of lowland meadow and pasture of high wildlife value from semi-improved or neglected grassland by 2010.
  • Re-establish 100 ha of lowland meadow and pasture of high wildlife value on arable or other lost sites, by 2010.
  • By 2010, 75 per cent (150 ha) of the restored/re-established area should be adjacent to existing lowland meadow and pasture or other semi-natural habitat, and 50 per cent (100 ha) should contribute to resultant habitat patches of 2 ha or more of lowland meadow and pasture.

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